THE LURE OF THE EXPERIENCE

Posted 2/3/07

The following story may be embellished somewhat, but is based on truth. There was once a man who came to CCB. He witnessed a powerful sermon, on a powerful passage, preceded by powerful testimony, leading to powerful prayer. When asked of his opinion, he replied that he preferred a livelier style of music. The person in question was quite clearly missing the point. He wasn’t me, but at times in my life it could quite conceivably have been. Many is the church I’ve judged on the standard of its worship. And many are the churches that have built their services, and the bulk of their outreach, upon the bedrock of lustily rendered songs.

I think of one church in particular. Ever single week, at the same point, the musicians, at the end of a particularly well performed number, would move smoothly into the repeated playing of two emotive chords. The congregation would instantly respond with a notable upgrade of ‘spiritual electricity’ around the room and would begin praying loudly, often in song, often in tongues. The worship leader himself would lead the way, singing ever more passionately in a combination of tongues and English. All concerned would feel the touch of the Lord. Were they wrong? Of course I would never dare to judge. It may well be that such a scenario led them to a greater appreciation and understanding of their loving heavenly father. However, it is dangerous to base your experience of God upon such manipulated tactics or, indeed, upon the addictive buzz of the Holy Spirit above all else.

It is only recently that, led by Perks, I have learned a little of why some regard the Alpha course with reservations. It stands charged of leading people to God via an experiential revelation – a conversion based primarily not on a biblical awareness of sin and subsequent repentance – but upon a sensual thrill. One testimony writes that ‘the “Holy Spirit” weekend convinced me of the reality of God as somebody personal to me. There was a time of prayer and in the background, a young lady sang with a perfect voice about Jesus. At that moment I sensed Jesus listening to me’. Salvation here, it could be said, is found through experience and feeling rather than through the doctrinal understanding required to make an informed commitment. (Although I remain sympathetic to the idea that this is preferable to no salvation at all…)

On a similar theme, the church in which I grew up brought somewhat into the ‘Toronto Blessing’ to the extent that, for a while, no service was complete unless it left someone lying on the floor. I’m sure the blessing was real and brought people into the church, but for me it marked the beginning of a long spiritual decline as I felt a failure for not speaking in tongues or crashing to the floor. A friend of mine left his church after taking offence at a leader pushing hard down on his head whilst praying over him during this time. Such tactics are also endemic to the Christian camps I attended as a child and teenager – powerful emotive meetings leaving those present high and enthused, but not necessarily any the wiser.

Now I repeat that I am not necessarily criticising the use of experience in building our Christian profiles. The things I have seen and witnessed that can not be easily explained from human perspective form a part of my faith, and reassure me greatly. I have been greatly encouraged by witnessing healing or the expulsion of demons. However, faith is less likely to endure if based only on experience. Moreover, if it forms the basis of our evangelism, we leave ourselves open to the Dawkins argument that we engage merely in tactics of mass persuasion and hysteria. The Toronto Blessing will come and go, but the Bible endures. Our faith then must be based on an understanding of the Bible, and we must be prepared to back up our faith on a biblical basis when engaging with others. I am a stronger Christian than I was before joining CCB because then I was looking for a good feeling, whereas now I am receiving good Bible-based teaching. I’d go as far as to state that we can’t truly know God if not through the Bible. To try and do so through impressive worship sessions instead would be to smell the food but to never eat it. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit are a powerful tool – the example of Acts shows us that – but they are not a substitute for God’s word.

PS: For all that – CCB could perhaps take the strait-jacket off a little… We may currently win the award for ‘the church in a school hall least likely to clap their hands’!!

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